How do we distinguish between horror and tragedy? Both feature often graphic depictions of intense human suffering, from gore to rock-bottom misery. Yet, for some reason or another, tragedy elicits our pity while horror elicits our excitement. Our natural, human response to suffering is empathy, but somehow this switch is temporarily turned off as we encounter the horror genre. Perhaps this phenomenon is unexplainable, a mere mystery of human nature; perhaps it is not.
Our thirst for human anguish can be explained in part by our greedy tendency, or desire, to gawk. “Gawking” is not simply staring open-mouthed; some believe the habit itself is scientifically motivated, a result of our minds’ flight or fight response. In in a 2017 NBC news article, clinical psychologist Dr. John Mayer states that our tendency to watch tragedy with such intensity allows our survival by sending signals from the emotional-centered amygdala to the data-analyzing regions of the frontal cortex. In turn, the brain is able to analyze whether the observed hazard is a genuine threat to the body. So, in certain cases (such as a car accident or sudden fight) gawking becomes our method of survival. Yet, so often, the brain determines the observed to no longer be a threat, and our eyes continue to linger, drinking up every last detail. In this case, the tragedy unfolding could be considered something of a science experiment, used by our minds to test the limits of our survival. Those actually affected by the threat (say, those in the car that crashed or the one caught with a punch to the nose) are merely players in our minds’ test of endurance. This isn’t an intentionally cruel response; rather, it is natural. Psychiatrist Dr. David Henderson elaborates on Mayer’s claims, explaining that we continue to watch once the threat has been determined to no longer be, because it is an opportunity to safely confront that which we fear. A lack of threat puts a distance between the tragedy and our bodies, while still allowing us to remain in tantalizingly close proximity to what we fear. Cruel as it sounds, those involved or affected by the tragedy essentially become irrelevant, collateral damage in our quest to overcome our terror.
Though a scientifically explained phenomenon, the concept of gawking as it presents visually to others is nowhere near acceptable. Staring at suffering is almost always a shameful thing. However, this habit simultaneously removes our ability to absorb the situation, which could in turn allow us to lend a helping hand. Though staring may appear to be cruel, it is often the forerunner of empathy and action.
Another outlet is essential in order to satiate our desire to stare, one that is not only socially acceptable, but will also prevent any necessity to involve oneself in the tragic situation at hand. Horror places the perfect distance between our consciences and the reality of suffering. It allows us to gawk unabashedly. What brings about this distance? An element is certainly the irreality of the suffering in a horror film; though many may know someone who lost a family member in a car wreck, very few can say they’ve lost someone in a “Haunting of Hill House” style situation. As humans, we frequently use such a device to distance ourselves from pain. Historically, when natural tragedies such as plague, famine, and infant mortality have ravaged communities, the blame was placed upon witches and divine wrath, an issue easily solved via a brutal scapegoating of a village outcast or devout prayer and sacrifice. In any case, placing blame on the invisible or magical has always allowed us to subvert the pain of natural suffering, no matter how brutal it may be. Nature may be unforgiving, but a witch is both predictable and punishable. Naturally, this tendency of distancing from reality (i.e., blaming the fantastical) to withstand the tragic extends to our creation and consumption of literature and media. Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt touches upon this habit in the context of tragedy and comedy: he argues that after the disasters of the 20th century, tragedy no longer has a place in the human ethos. Rather, in the last 70-80 years, the tradition of “tragicomedy” has sidled up to replace tragedy, as mankind attempts to take flight from reality by twisting it beyond recognition. Comedy is in this case simply a method of detachment. When coupled with tragedy, it allows the tragic to lose its foothold in reality. This newfound tradition is representative of the habit of humans today to detach ourselves, through ironic detachment, from the authentic. This ironic detachment, a tradition in which humour or horror can be performed without an “attachment” of any kind to the suffering on stage, allows for the consumption of suffering to be acceptable when spoon fed in an unrealistic manner.
Is it indicative of a hopeless downfall of human nature that we seek so frequently to remove ourselves from the empathetic nature of tragedy? I fear I conjure up images of pompous early humanists when I reflect on humankind’s previous receptions to tragedy: in Ancient Greece, the belief that tragedy was representative of all human experience was not taken lightly. The performance, according to Susan Taubes in a 1953 article for The Review of Metaphysics, is a form of communal expression, taking ultimate precedence over ritual. In other words, the performance of tragedy is imperative to a culture’s understanding of the community and the human psyche. As a result, suffering must be viewed and it must be felt. It is not as though the ancient Greeks, nor any other cultures existing around the world at the time, didn’t experience the reality of suffering. They most certainly did, and they still put it on stages. However, as Dürrenmatt argues, the 20th century and what followed took suffering to another, unimaginable level; the astronomical levels of death and human pain of world wars and genocide were not only immense, but were for the first time photographed and recorded. We were forced to detach ourselves in order to cope. This detachment takes shape in numerous ways, too many to touch upon. Just one, however, is the genre of horror.
I don’t think it entirely shameful that we can view suffering in horror with such antipathy, or even excitement. There are times when it disgusts me, of course: certain prison and “asylum” motifs at haunted houses turn my stomach, as well as the thought of the sensationalism of exorcisms or witch hunts. Indeed, it may be the exercise of a killjoy to attempt to moralize the consumption of media that so many do genuinely enjoy, and is for the most part unharmful. Halloween and its horrors may be technically classified as a harbinger of evil, but it is also a cultural joy and celebration for many. But in the same vein, it is not useless advice to consider reopening ourselves to empathy in regards to the tragic. In a time when we have been numbed to death, lives lost becoming mere ticks upon a glowing screen, a return to reality may be exactly what we need in order to experience compassion yet again. Rather than distancing ourselves from suffering through ironic performance and horror tropes, we should attempt to close in upon pain and learn through it again. If we are to believe the Greeks, the communal performance and understanding of tragedy is the only way to heal from it. Subtracting the ironic detachment of horror-genre performances of tragedy could resuscitate our capability for empathy. Not only so, but it provides an outlet for the natural behaviour of gawking. We still have the space in which to contemplate the spectacle of suffering; it is not a car wreck or tragic death in which doing so would be inappropriate. However, a lack of detachment provides an opportunity for the viewer to engage in and genuinely feel the tragedy of the performance. I do not know exactly what this would look like. Perhaps it would fall somewhere on the spectrum between Greek tragic performance and the nightly news. Either way, such an experience or spectacle would provide an outlet for the encountering of suffering. In order to salvage our compassion, it is necessary to experience that which elicits it, rather than to hide from it.
Indeed, it may be the exercise of a killjoy to attempt to moralize the consumption of media that so many do genuinely enjoy, and is for the most part unharmful. Halloween and its horrors may be technically classified as a harbinger of evil, but it is also a cultural joy and celebration for many. But in the same vein, it is not useless advice to consider reopening ourselves to empathy in regards to the tragic.